Sunday, June 10, 2018

Spring trip 2018: "Pittsburgh, my boy!"

"Pittsburgh, my boy!" (a favorite and oft-quoted line from Vonnegut's Player Piano)

Why Pittsburgh?

We chose Pittsburgh, in no small part, because it serves as a continued example of the ways in which people influence technology and the ways in which technology influences people. We started the year at Tillers International, a farm and learning center in Scotts, Michigan, where we took classes on traditional skills (such as woodworking, blacksmithing, and ploughing with draft animals). Through our study of Arduino robots and then our study of solar panels, we looked at modern tools that people are using to change the world. We’re finishing our last project, research about the history of Detroit, and learning about the ways in which industry has shaped the people in the city over time. Pittsburgh has a long history of industry and innovation and has continued to reinvent itself as a center of innovation through robotics, computer science, and art. As we finish our year, we’ll return to the conversation about people and tools and the interplay between them over time.


But first, Pittsburgh. We arrived on Monday afternoon and went straight to the Duquesne Incline. The incline was originally built to carry cargo up Mt Washington in the late nineteenth century. It’s still part of the Pittsburgh transit system and people still use it to commute to and from work. The view from the observation deck was breathtaking and it gave us a good sense of the layout of the city: the bridges, the rivers, and the recognizable monuments.

After the incline, we drove to our dorm at the University of Pittsburgh. Once we got settled, we took a city bus to Market Square, a lovely area downtown with restaurants surrounding a small square. Kids walked around and ate in small groups before we reconvened back in the square. Once everyone returned from dinner, we walked across the Roberto Clemente bridge and over to the Water Steps, an interactive sculpture on the bank of the Allegheny River. After a bit of wet frolicking, we took the bus back to the dorm.


On Tuesday, we started our day at the Mattress Factory, an interactive modern art installation museum in the Strip District. We broke into groups and explored a variety of thought-provoking and curious spaces throughout two of the museum’s buildings. Once we finished our visit, we met up with guides from City of Asylum, an incredibly fascinating and inspiring organization that supports writers in exile through several compelling programs. We walked through their writers’ residences and then stopped by their cafe/bookstore/event space, Alphabet City. At Alphabet City, we had the honor of listening to Tuhin Das, an exiled writer from Bangladesh, share some of his poems and talk with us about his experiences.


From Alphabet City, we walked to Randyland, a funky and colorful public art exhibit/installation/interactive space. From Randyland, we drove over to Sienna Mercato Emporia, a “meatball joint” with many non-meatball options for lunch. Post-meatballs (or other delicacies), we walked to the Senator John Heinz History Center, where we saw all sorts of fascinating exhibits and artifacts (notably, a fantastic interactive exhibit on Prohibition and the original set from “Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood," among all sorts of other treasures).


After an afternoon learning about the history of the Pittsburgh area, we walked to Condado Tacos for a delicious meal. Then, we went back to the dorm for a few minutes of down time before driving out to Trundle Manor. It’s easier to describe Trundle Manor by explaining what it isn’t instead of what it is. Trundle Manor is not an average museum. It’s not actually an official museum at all. It’s not empty. It’s not predictable. It’s not boring. What is it? It’s the private residence of the peculiar and delightful Velda and Mr. Arm, who welcomed us into their collection of specimens with warmth and charm. Highlights included tall flames, wonders of taxidermy, and the chance to talk about being true to yourself and bringing that which is uniquely yours -- whatever it may be -- into the world. For specific details, you’ll really have to talk with the children.


On Thursday, we woke up and went straight to the Carnegie Science Center. After some time in the Robot Hall of Fame, most of the students went to the “Sportsworks” complex, which included a high ropes course, a “human yo-yo,” a climbing wall, and a chance to run around a bit. Another highlight of the museum was the chance to walk through the USS Requin, a submarine originally set out days before the end of World War II and sent on many lengthy defense and scientific missions, some of which are still classified.


After the submarine stroll, we set off for Carnegie-Mellon University, where we visited the IDeATe space. IDeATe stands for “Integrative Design, Arts, and Technology” and it’s a cross-disciplinary program that connects people doing work in technology and art across the campus. We got to talk with a professor about his coursework, with students working in different spaces (fabrication, woodworking, and animation, among others), and with our outstanding guide. Students asked great questions, of course, and were invited back (as college students) by several of the adults with whom we spoke.


After CMU, we walked to Shadyside for some free time to stroll. Post-stroll, we went to a park for a final night pizza picnic. After soccer, swinging, and groundies, we returned to the dorm for time to hang out and pack.


On Thursday morning, we loaded the buses and set off for Moraine State Park. When we got to Lake Arthur, we met up with Ian and Ryan from Surfs Up Adventures for our paddle boarding eco-tour of the lake. From paddle boarding through small inlets between glacial rock formations to paddle board dodge ball, it was the perfect way to end a wonderful trip.


Traveling with this group of young people is a pleasure. We are particularly grateful to all of our hosts at the University of Pittsburgh, the Duquesne Incline, the Mattress Factory, City of Asylum, the Heinz History Center, Trundle Manor, the Carnegie Science Center, Carnegie-Mellon University, and Surfs Up Adventures. Tremendous, tremendous, thank you to Pamela Bogart and Chris Swinko, who gave up their own lives for four days to join us on this epic voyage. We so appreciate all you did to help make this trip so much fun.

Find all of our photos in the class album. In the mean time, here are a few highlights...



The Duquesne Incline



The Water Steps along the bank of the Allegheny River


Eighth graders looking cool


More cool eighth graders - when did they get so big?


Hanging out in Market Square


Mattress Factory


City of Asylum


Prohibition exhibit at the Heinz History Center


Sportsworks at the Carnegie Science Center


More Sportsworks


A beautiful day (and really neat sculpture) at Carnegie-Mellon University


Three Rivers



Playing at/in the Water Steps


More City of Asylum


Mr. Arm at Trundle Manor


Interesting specimens at Trundle Manor


Velda opening the gifts we made for the musem


These children are absolutely the creators of tomorrow's breakthroughs. 


Inside the USS Requin at the Carnegie Science Center


Learning about Arduino + laser engraver tools designed to improve the lives of senior citizens made by students in a class at Carnegie-Mellon


The animation room at IDeATe (at CMU)


Pizza picnic at the park


Paddle boarding


Learning how to pivot turn on the board



Paddling under part of the North Country Trail, which winds through the park


You can't hear the frogs in the photo, but they were there. 


To continued adventures...





Friday, June 8, 2018

End of April and all of May (except for one very eventful week in May during which we took to the streets of Pittsburgh)

Yet again, I have belated weekly updates. Below, you'll find the end of April through all of May, minus the spring trip, which will get its own post in due time...

week of 4/30/18


Where did the week go? Between work on individual research projects, a trip to Detroit, and music rehearsals, it’s hard to believe that it’s already Friday afternoon. That being said, we usually feel like this on Fridays.


On Tuesday, we visited the house of Dr. Ossian Sweet, the physician about whose trial we’ve been studying for the last several weeks. The house is a private residence but it is a Michigan historic landmark and has a placard on the front lawn. It was powerful to stand in the space where the events of that fateful night in 1925 unfolded and to think about the world then and the world now.


After a few minutes there, we drove to the Artist Village in the Old Redford neighborhood to learn about neighborhood revitalization efforts there and to think about the idea of “revitalization” more broadly. Next week, we’ll continue this discussion with a focus on the work and writings of Grace Lee Boggs.


In their individual research, students are working on moving from notecards to outlines (or other graphic organizers). After they complete their outlines, they’ll be ready to begin writing their research papers. When you next see the 7-8s, ask them to tell you about their Detroit research paper. You’ll be dazzled


week of 5/7/18


It’s been a busy week of work on individual Detroit research projects. While we’ve missed Sam this week, we’ve been delighted (and fortunate) to welcome Ed Feng to do math with us every day. Ed and the students are working on data visualizations using data sets related to their Detroit research topics. Speaking of Detroit, we spent a rainy afternoon on a walking tour of downtown today. Highlights included a ride on the People Mover, a stroll through the Guardian Building, stops at various landmarks (Spirit of Detroit, Monument to Joe Louis, Labor Legacy Monument, Gateway to Freedom Monument), and a walk through Campus Martius (including a stop at Point Zero).


Students have been hard at work on their individual research projects and are ready to start writing their papers next week. All are welcome to join us for a sharing session next Friday, May 18, at 2:30pm.


week of 5/28/18


We spent last week in the thriving metropolis of Pittsburgh, the city to which Paul Proteus (protagonist from Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, which we read earlier this year) may have aspired to work (although, to be honest, despite the pressures of those around him, he never really “wanted” to get the job in Pittsburgh, but you’ll have to find a 7th or 8th grader to explain that tension to you).


I promise (again) to write a comprehensive overview of our trip in the next few days. In the meantime, we spent this short week finishing research papers, writing graduation speeches (8th graders), and working on a special surprise project (7th graders). All will be revealed in due time…

Friday, April 27, 2018

Weekly overview - week of 4/23/18

We started the week by continuing our investigation into the trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet. After reading through testimony and both sides’ closing arguments, students acted as jurors and determined a verdict (not guilty). Then, we went to the Bentley Historical Library to look through primary sources related to the trial, including transcripts on microfilm, the personal diaries of the judge’s secretary (Judge Frank Murphy, before he became mayor), newspaper articles from 1925 with stories about the trial, and other related documents. One of the goals of this endeavor was to put a human face on historical events, especially events that have shaped local history.

We then turned our attention to the work of Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press. We read one of Randall’s poems, “Booker T. and W.E.B” and discussed the different philosophies of Washington and DuBois.

We also spent time exploring the “Mapping Inequalities,” a digitized collection of “security maps” and area descriptions produced by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation as part of the New Deal. These maps, which were created to help realtors, developers, and lenders assess an area’s risk and credit worthiness, help to tell the story of housing segregation in the United States (and the government’s role in it). Of course, our focus was on the ways that Detroit neighborhoods were evaluated, but we also explored cities all over the country. Putting our own observations into a historical context helps us to understand how the past shapes the present and gives us a chance to think about what we can do to make positive changes in the future.

Students are also starting to create notecards for their individual research papers related to an aspect of the history of Detroit. Topics include Detroit as the “arsenal of democracy” during World War II, the impact of different types of music on communities, iconic Detroit food, the history of Belle Isle, public art, influential architects and architectural styles, different immigrant groups and their culinary influence, the history of significant monuments, the history of the Purple Gang, Woodward’s original city plans, the relationship between race and standardized test scores, the relationship between test scores and job growth over time, the Detroit Tigers, and the ecological impact of gentrification. Of course, as research continues, topics are subject to change. After the students take notes on index cards, they’ll turn their cards into an outline and, eventually, turn that into a research paper.

After a week of hard work, we decided to follow in the footsteps of generations of Detroiters and spend the afternoon on Belle Isle. In addition to a lovely picnic and jaunt on the massive playground, we also visited the Belle Isle Aquarium (oldest public aquarium in the continental United States), the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. It was a perfect way to end the week.


Friday, April 20, 2018

April overviews (where do the days go?)

Dear reader,

It seems to have happened again. The projects continue at full speed, the weeks pass, and suddenly, it's been a month since I've updated the blog. Alas, here are weekly summaries of what we've been doing since we returned from spring break.

week of 4/2/18

It’s been a whirlwind week back to school as we wrapped up our Solar School projects, finished reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, and started preparing for two debates next week. Students completed feasibility studies and submitted their proposals for judging as part of the Eco Center’s Solar School contest. Here is one team’s proposal video.

Next week’s debates will focus on two topics: the “Hole in the Wall” project and the “One Laptop per Child” program. Using The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind as a framework for thinking through issues of technology and energy in developing countries, students will debate the successes and limitations of both of these programs.

week of 4/9/18
This week, as students finished their Solar Schools contest entries, science focused on power storage, batteries, and how the differential work function of metals allows for the creation of electrochemical cells.Students also worked on their final solar panel presentations to share with Walter in the near future. We also bid farewell to our electronics (for now) as we deconstructed our old robots and reassembled our Arduino kits so that they’re ready to go for future projects.

Students prepared for two debates (one was this week, one will be next week) on approaches to technology implementation in emerging countries, focusing on the “Hole in the Wall” project and the “One Laptop per Child” project. Students debated the efficacy and the potential implications of the programs through the lens of what they learned about William Kamkwamba and his educational opportunities in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.  

week of 4/16/18
We kicked off our last project of the year this week with an introduction to Detroit history, focusing on 1900-1967 as a class (students are doing individual research on aspects of the city ranging from 1701 to the present). We watched Mayor Cavanaugh’s 1965 Olympic bid video and contrasted his vision for the city’s future with the consequences of  the “urban renewal” movement of the 1950s (including, specifically, the destruction of the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods in Detroit). This set the foundation for our trip to the Detroit Historical Museum’s “Detroit 67: Perspectives” exhibit, where we walked through the exhibit with an  outstanding discussion facilitator. Our focus was on both the events themselves and the ways that multiple narratives, when woven together, work to broaden and deepen our understanding of past events.

This project will include research as a class, such as the work we’ve done on the 1967 uprising and the work we’re continuing to do on the trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet, and individual research based on students’ own area of interest. Students will be writing formal research papers based on their original research questions. Over the course of this week, students read through primary and secondary sources related to their areas of interests in order to focus their topic into a research question and thesis statement. Next steps will include note taking and outlining. They will also be producing an annotated bibliography, including sources they used for their research and at least one source that they chose not to use (and why).

As part of our study of Detroit history as a class, we’ll be reading a different Detroit-related poet each week (someone who was born in the city, spent significant time in the city, or whose writing was impacted by the city in a significant way). We started with Robert Hayden, the first African American poet laureate (although that was not the title at the time), who grew up in Detroit.  After reading “Those Winter Sundays” and “Frederick Douglass” in class, students analyzed each poem and responded to questions and writing prompts related to the poems and the poet.


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Weekly overview - week of 3/19/18

During this short week, students continued to work on their solar schools project. In small groups, they are finishing presentations and planning out their short videos in order to submit them to the Ecology Center’s contest in just a few weeks. Some students are working on 3D modeling, others are working to develop a proposal to present to Walter, and another group is working on low-cost options for the use of solar panels to power the greenhouse (a related project about which the 3-4s presented at last week’s morning meeting). In addition to their work on the specifics of solar energy and its feasibility (including using the architectural site plans from the school in order to determine roof angle and area), students have also been learning about simple and compound interest, including related math used to determine estimated payoff and return on investment.

They’ve also been reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. On Tuesday, wrote an in-class impromptu essay responding to a prompt about the book (“impromptu” in the sense that they didn’t know the prompt beforehand; they did know they’d be writing an essay in class). After reviewing how to structure a three paragraph essay, students had approximately one hour to write an essay with quotes from the book and commentary that connected the quotes to their thesis statement. This was our first opportunity to write a timed essay this year and we’ll continue to practice this skill.

We hope everyone has a peaceful, joyful, and healthy spring break.








Monday, March 12, 2018

Weekly overview - week of 3/5/18

We kicked off our third major project of the year this week: solar schools. Students are divided into teams of four and each team is investigating the feasibility of a solar panel array in different parts of the building as part of the Ann Arbor Ecology Center’s “Solar School” contest. After surveying the campus for potential areas, they started their research into practicalities of the project and developing a list of known unknowns. They then categorized their questions into those we can answer in our own research and those that will require us to reach out to an expert (our school as an assigned expert mentor as part of our participation in the contest). Over the course of the week, as students found answers to their questions, we spent time sharing resources and developing classwide collaborative notes documents. Moving forward, as they fine-tune their group feasibility studies, they will eventually create solar proposals for their designated locations and short videos to submit to the Ecology Center for the contest.


We also started reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the true story of a young Malawian man who built a windmill from scrap parts in order to generate power for his family. We will continue to read, analyze, and respond to this text for the next several weeks.

Friday, March 2, 2018